How to Write a D&D Campaign (Even If You’re Brand New to DMing)

How to Write a D&D Campaign

There’s not much better than sitting around a living room with friends, empty pizza boxes littering the kitchen counter, dice on the table, and jaws dropped thanks to a twist in your Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Writing your own D&D campaign is a challenging, rewarding experience. You know your players better than anyone, and you can create a world specifically tailored for them. Most importantly, writing your own campaign is fun. It can be a little intimidating to get started, but I’m here to help you out.

In this post, I’ll teach you how to build a campaign by focusing on three key pillars of Tabletop RPG Narrative design: writing for your world, writing for your players, and writing for yourself. This is the same tried-and-test framework I’ve used for over 3 long-running campaigns for the past five years.

Before we move on, here are some great resources you’ll want to check out before you get too deep into the campaign building process:

  1. Read (and then re-read) the Player’s Handbook. It’s important to have a basic understanding of the way 5th Edition operates
  2. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is going to give you an inside look at the way the developers of 5th edition intended this game to be run. It has great insight and timesavers that will be instrumental in your campaign writing.

If at any point you decide that writing your own campaign feels like too much work (or if you just want to see how other campaigns are written) consider running an official published adventure (I suggest Curse of Strahd or Storm King’s Thunder). These published adventures are pre-made campaigns that you can buy, and they’re a great way to learn how pacing, NPCs, and table-top RPG narratives work. I’ve run campaigns that started out as a published adventure, but once I understood the world, I made it my own.

The Three Pillars

Writing a campaign is built on three pillars:

  1. The World
  2. The Players
  3. You

These pillars blend to make a cohesive experience. You can’t create a campaign without understanding the players who are going to live in your world, and you can’t expect to run that world without some help.

The World: Start Small

Writing a D&D campaign isn’t like writing a book or script. You can’t write plot. When writing your campaign, you write the world and the NPCs that live in it. Your players write the plot. You write the situations and encounters they will find themselves in, but it’s your players’ actions that fill in the ink.

Before you get started, think about what kind of world you want to set your campaign in. Is it a Lord of the Rings type fantasy where the players are larger-than-life heroes fighting terrible evil? Is it a dungeon-crawling campaign set in a post-apocalypse where dark secrets lurk in ancient ruins? Your first step is to figure out what kind of game you and your players want to play. Once you know the theme, you can start building the world.

The key is to start small. I’ve seen new DMs think they have to know the history of their world, the geography, the BBEG (big bad evil guy - the main villain of your campaign), and flesh out the factions and important characters before everyone can sit down and play. That’s not the case at all. In fact, you really only need the starting town and initial plot hook.

In my current campaign, it took me four months to figure out who I wanted the main villain to be. I didn’t map out my world until six months in. Your mileage may vary based on how quickly your players move around, but you don’t need to know the capital city of a nation on the other side of  your world on day one.

You just need to know that the town of Redvine has a problem: goblins have kidnapped the blacksmith’s daughter, and the town’s mayor has posted a 100 gold bounty to get her back.

After every session, build on that small foundation. What are the surrounding towns like? Were those goblins working for someone else? What if the mayor was trying to lead the players into a trap?

As you build, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the surrounding area like? What are some exciting destinations that the players can visit?
  • What are the politics of the area? Is there a benevolent king? Is the onslaught of a necromancer causing trade to break down? Is there a small faction threatening civil war?
  • What NPCs can drive the story forward? What villains can stoke the players’ anger? What death of a beloved NPC can you use to break their hearts?

Being a dungeon master means being flexible. Adaptable. Your world should shift based on the moves your players are making. If you try to fill in too many details at the beginning, you’ll find the urge to be inflexible, and that’s how boring D&D campaigns are written.

The Players: Your World, Their Story

Dungeons and Dragons is a power-fantasy. The players in your game have a fantasy in their head they want to play out in your world. Your tiefling sorceress wants to delve into dangerous dungeons and find ancient and powerful gear that will make her stronger. Your pirate-turned monk wants to be a shining light in the darkness, and she wants the opportunity to save lives and destroy evil. Your Aasimar warlock with amnesia wants to find his place in this world, and he wants to know why there are only 12 of his kind left.

As a dungeon master, you build the world, but your players write the story. New DMs make the mistake of writing plot. “First, they’re going to find out that the blacksmith’s daughter has been kidnapped. Then, they’re going to go to the cave, kill the goblins, and rescue the daughter.” That’s plot, and that’s bad campaign writing.

What happens if your players aren’t sure if they’re strong enough to take on a cave of goblins? What if they want to ask the town guard to help? What if they want to find a powerful wizard to assist them? Or, even worse, what if they decide the blacksmith’s daughter had it coming and opt to leave the goblins alone?  

D&D is at its best when the players go off the rails. If you write plot, you won’t be able to roll with the punches. Worse, your players will know when they are being railroaded. “Oh, so this town in the middle of a dangerous forest doesn’t have a town guard?”

Here are some ways to keep your players involved when writing your world:

Have a session zero

Before you officially play your first game, have everyone sit down and talk about their characters. Let them figure out how their characters know each other. Give them time to brainstorm their characters’ personalities, traits, and flaws. Use that to build hooks into your campaign.

Ask for feedback

Always keep a finger on the pulse of your group. I used to give a survey after every arc of my campaigns to see how my players felt about the current game. I have recently shifted to asking my players, “What’s the best thing and worst thing about today’s session?” I use their answers to improve and build my story around what they want.

Be flexible

Your players will not always do what you expect them to. In fact, they will rarely do what you expect them to. That’s the best part of Dungeons and Dragons. Embrace it, and be flexible. If you find out that some of your players enjoy getting loot, throw in a heist or an ancient ruin to explore. If they enjoy combat, put them in the middle of a huge battle. Adapt to the story they create, and work with them to create an amazing story.

Let your Players shine

You are working with an ensemble cast. Two to six of your friends are starring in a show that you are running, and everyone needs their time to shine.  Make sure that each character has a “hook” that you can play with, and switch between them liberally. You will keep the players invested by keeping their characters invested.

Your world revolves around their characters. Your dragonborn blood-hunter wants to know why the vampire-king calls her “his favorite”. That needs to be an important part of the story.

You: Make it Easy for Yourself

Before we go to the meat-and-potatoes of this section, know this: being a dungeon master is supposed to be fun. Writing a D&D campaign is fun. You’d be surprised at how many people want to avoid trying their hand at DMing because they think it’s too much work. I’ve seen even DMs get burnt out because they are working too hard on their campaign.

The key here is to work smarter, not harder. A good rule of thumb is that your prep time should only be half of the time you spend actually playing the game. If you are running four-hour sessions, you should prep for two hours. I’ll occasionally increase my prep time, but I only do that because I want to—because it’s fun. On the flipside, there are some sessions where I sit down behind the dungeon master’s screen with zero hours of preptime, and I just let the world I built and my adaptability do the work. Find out what works best for you and what you have the most fun doing, and then run with that. 

With that being said, making a Dungeons and Dragons campaign is only half the battle. Running it is just as important, and can have far-reaching implications for the world you are creating. Here are some tools and tricks that can make your life behind the screen a little less hectic:

Organization is King

You can have a million great ideas, hooks, and NPCs, but if you can’t find them in the heat of the moment, they are useless. I use use two tools to organize my D&D campaign - OneNote for my digital ideas, and a fishing tackle box to hold my physical gear.

OneNote

I use OneNote to organize the ideas, session notes, NPCs, Player-character arcs, locations, and items. OneNote is a free application from Microsoft that acts as a digital notepad. It has sections that can split into sub-sections, and the search function can help you jump from one subject to the next without missing a beat.

Here’s an example of what my current campaign Notebook looks like:

I can access OneNote through my laptop, tablet, or phone, which means I always have my campaign with me. If one of my players asks, “Hey, who was that dwarf that owns the blacksmith shop in Winterhaven?” I can quickly search for “blacksmith” in OneNote and find that the dwarf’s name is Ogden.

Plano 3700 Angled Storage System

For physical things, I use a Plano 3700 Angled Storage System. It’s technically a fishing tackle box, but it works perfectly for carrying everything I need to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons. This includes:

  • D&D Rulebooks
  • Laptop
  • Notebook
  • Maps
  • Dice
  • Monster Tokens
  • Item Cards
  • Notecards
  • Dungeon Master’s Screen

Here are a few pictures of the tackle box in action:

Note: Obviously, the only thing you really need to run D&D is an imagination and a set of dice. For the games I run, I like to use maps, item cards, tokens, etc. Your tools should reflect the kinds of games you want to run.

It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination

Writing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign is not like writing a book or script. It is a constantly evolving, living world that you and your players are writing together. It’s more like you’re a showrunner, and the players are the cast, crew, and audience.

Here’s one final piece of advice:

You’re going to mess up. You’re going to get a rule wrong, or forget a key storyhook. Don’t let that bother you. What’s more important is that you and your friends have fun playing in the world that you created. There’s nothing quite like it.